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Newcastle fly out to face stiff European test
IF not quite taking a step into the unknown, Newcastle United's players will certainly be heading out of their comfort zone when they travel to Ukraine later today ahead of tomorrow's Europa League last-32 decider with Metalist Kharkiv.
It is ten-and-a-half years since a Newcastle side last travelled to Ukraine, and they returned chastened by a 2-0 defeat to Dynamo Kiev in the group stage of the Champions League.
Since then, Ukrainian football has come on apace, to the extent that Dynamo, for so long the Ukrainian powerhouses of the old Soviet system, are no longer the dominant force in their home nation.
Shakhtar Donetsk have claimed that honour, with Metalist among a clutch of clubs to have amassed considerable continental experience in the last few seasons as they have propelled themselves into the upper echelons of European football.
The Kharkiv side's performance in last week's first leg at St James' Park confirmed the difficulty of the task facing Newcastle tomorrow as they attempt to move into the last 16, where they would face either Anzhi Makhachkala or Hannover.
On the pitch, they will be tackling a disciplined, well-organised set of opponents who offered enough of an attacking threat on Tyneside to suggest they are more than capable of troubling the Magpies backline in their home stadium.
Away from the field of play, Newcastle's travelling contingent will have to contend with temperatures that are forecast to drop as low as minus ten during tomorrow night's game and a Metalist Stadium crowd that have established a revered reputation in their homeland for the strength of their support.
Make no mistake about it, for all the talk of full-strength teams and a much greater squad depth than was the case in the first half of the season, this is not going to be easy for Alan Pardew and his men.
If they progress tomorrow, their achievement will arguably be Newcastle's greatest European feat since Sir Bobby Robson's team recovered from their 2002 defeat in Kiev to win three games in a row and qualify for the second group stage of the Champions League.
The challenge is that intense, yet the knowledge that an away goal could prove pivotal is providing cause for cautious optimism. There is respect for Kharkiv's abilities, yet belief is also in evidence.
“The Premier League is very important, but we want to win the Europa League,” said Gael Bigirimana, who is set to form part of a strong substitutes' bench tomorrow. “With all the new players, our squad has a lot of options, so that is what we are all aiming for.
“Europe is a really big opportunity for us. Especially as young players, it is a chance to do well and achieve something.”
At the start of the season, the Europa League was the preserve of Newcastle's youthful contingent, but as other opportunities for success have disappeared, the mindset has changed.
Pardew named the strongest knock-out side he had ever selected when Metalist visited Tyneside last week, and despite the importance of Sunday's Premier League game with Southampton, more of the same is anticipated tomorrow.
The Newcastle boss confirmed as much on stage at the Sage on Monday as he attended a memorial tribute to Sir Bobby Robson – his words were greeted rapturously, belying the notion that no one really cares about the Europa League – and a full-strength squad will depart Newcastle Airport later today.
That is to the detriment of the likes of Bigirimana, Vurnon Anita and Sammy Ameobi, who were staples of the Europa League group stage, but underlines the shift in attitude towards a competition that is much less cumbersome now knock-out football has returned.
“Lately (in European matches), I've been on the bench or in the squad, but it's all experience and I understand that,” said Bigirimana. “The gaffer is saying, 'Keep working, keep learning' and I will do that. I'm just proud to be part of Newcastle United.”
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